Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Weberman Trial, or: The Wolf Who Cried Bias

By David Lerner
The Satmar community sees itself as the victim in the Weberman case. Which brings to mind the saying in the Talmud: “They commit the act of Zimri and demand the reward of Pinchas.”
“The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone else.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

King Alexander Jannaeus once warned his wife that the only people one needs to fear are pseudo-pious hypocrites. “They commit the act of Zimri and demand the reward of Pinchas,” he said, and this is exactly what came to mind in the aftermath of Nechemya Weberman’s trial and the surreal attempts by the Satmar Hasidic community to paint itself as the victim.
Nechemya Weberman has by now been found guilty on 59 charges, including sexual abuse of children, and the following is now abundantly clear: The Satmar Hasidic community, on our watch, protects and shelters abusers of children. This is no longer a matter for debate, but an irrefutable fact.
The community’s reaction to recent events has been truly bizarre. Community members argue that they have been unfairly depicted in the media; journalists and columnists, they claim, are biased and use anti-Semitic imagery. But the most widespread gripe is that the entire community was put on trial, and that’s unfair! Weberman’s own defense attorney, George Farkas, employed this canard in his opening statement at trial, alleging that the victim had “great vengeance and furious anger … against Nechemya Weberman, and [sought] through this to bring down the entire community that either supported him, or of which he was a part.”
In a recent interview with the squalid Ami magazine, Farkas reiterated much of this, arguing essentially: The jury didn’t get the whole truth, but I can’t tell you what that is. One can perhaps forgive George Farkas; he’s an attorney defending his client. What I do take issue with is his assertion that: “I think they [Satmar] have the right to distrust her.”
With those words, Farkas is going beyond defending Weberman. He is essentially excusing all the intimidation that led up to the trial, and restating the fatuous “the entire community was on trial.”
If there is any merit to this rather grandiose claim, it is only because the community inserted itself into the proceedings with their own actions; it is they alone who put themselves on trial. Let us review how this very community has reacted in response to the allegations against Weberman.
On May 16th of this year, the Satmar community threw an extremely well-publicized and well-attended fundraiser for Weberman, a man then accused of truly heinous acts. It is reported that they sought to raise $500,000 at this event for Weberman’s defense. Some of the publicity might be credited to victim advocates protesting at the event, but Satmar made no pretense of discretion; the event was widely announced via Yiddish posters all over Williamsburg. That their support for Weberman was meant for public consumption is further evidenced by the hiring of an unlettered PR hack; a man whose Twitter bio contains the laughable falsehood: “My Opinions are Based on Facts; Not Ideology [sic].” Employing his unique brand of casuistry, he assured the media that this was all about ensuring justice, a fair trial, and the American Way. (Justice for the victim? They overlooked that American tradition, it seems.)
A mere few weeks later it became clear that some people were willing to invest substantial capital in making this case disappear. Four Hasidic men were arrested on charges of bribery: they tried to buy the victim’s silence and/or departure with $500,000. Some will argue that these men were acting on their own, that there is no connection between the two events, but I trust intelligent and literate people to review the sequence of events and draw their own conclusion.
Let us also review what happened to the victim and her family for pursuing justice:
They have been subject to numerous threats of bodily harm.
They have been expelled from schools and synagogues.
They have had their businesses defaced and boycotted.
They have become the objects of widespread slander, dismissed as the dregs of their own society.
Satmar men photographed the accuser in court, necessitating precautions usually reserved for gang trials. (One of the men claimed to be a supporter of the victim; if that is the case he is only guilty of ignorance.)
Near the end of the trial came the most damning news of all: Schoolchildren were being recruited to prayfor Weberman’s acquittal. Teachers received instructions to employ their students in beseeching God on behalf of “the important activist” falsely accused by “debased and lowly people.” For extra weight, the instructions quoted the Shemone Esreh prayer–“May there be no hope for informants”–implying that Weberman’s accuser was deserving, as the prayer hopes, “instant annihilation.”
There is so much more: the Anthony Comstock-esque Vaad Hatznius, the perjury of the school principal denying its existence, the intimidation of Weberman’s other victims who have not yet come forward, the cowardice of Weberman’s anonymous defenders on Twitter and other social media, and much more. All these point to the same inevitable conclusion: Weberman, a man accused of monstrous offenses against children, received widespread support from the community.
And still they cry: “The community was put on trial!”
It wasn’t. It was never about the community–until they themselves made it so.
We often compare people who shout inflammatory lies to The Boy who Cried Wolf. The more conventional moral to that fable is that if one wishes to deceive, do not employ the same falsehood over and over. This eludes Satmar, one of whose leaders referred to the young girl as a “whore”–a classic tactic among those who blame victims for their abuse. But in this case, there is a unique twist to it: In Aaesop’s classic fable, the boy who cried wolf does not directly lead the wolf to his flock; the same cannot be said of Satmar. The Satmar community led the victim directly to her predator, then rejoiced in protecting, defending, and sheltering him.
Satmar had a real wolf but ignored it, and then cried about an imaginary wolf: the outside world and the media. That is disgraceful.
After all is said and done, each of us can only be responsible for our own actions and inactions. I do not believe in collective guilt, but ultra-Orthodox Jews as a group must do some serious soul-searching over how they handle criminals within their community: Child sexual abuse exists and is a serious problem; Mesirah, as Rabbi Eli Fink argued in a recent blog post, is an outdated concept that needs to be discarded; rabbinical courts do not have the power to deal with sexual predators save for the same power we all have: involving the police. The sooner all this is realized the better it will be for children. Change can happen only when more Chasidim defy societal taboos against talking about abuse and reporting abusers; maintaining the status quo will only bring about more victims.
Finally, it is no secret that many (although certainly not all) of the victim’s advocates are “OTD,” or “Off the Derech,” the people who have left the path of Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism. These men and women, including myself, are repeatedly asked: “Why do you care?” In other words: you guys left the community, so why don’t you just mind your own business?! This echoes the “outside agitators” claim used by every tyrant in dismissing calls for change, and deflects the issue entirely. But still, as a former Hasid and an “OTD” myself, I will offer this in response:
We grew up in these communities. The victims are our sisters, our brothers, our friends. We personally know many victims of abuse who have not come forward for fear of retaliation. Yes, it is true we no longer share your religious views, but we are still your brothers and sisters. We see protecting children as the most universal human value. We intimately know this community and its attitudes; we don’t want to destroy them, we want them to protect their most vulnerable members.
That is why we care, and that is why we will not remain silent.

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